Several times over the last few weeks parents have asked me about a shift away from traditional assessments like multiple choice tests and fill-in-the-blank quizzes and toward what I would call deeper learning opportunities and alternative ways of assessing what students know and how they can apply what they’ve learned. This is a great question, and gets to the heart of how we understand education in the Information Age and how we work to prepare students for success in a world markedly different than the one in which most of us adults grew up.
For most of the twentieth century, school was organized around an industrial model that operated on the assumption that information was at a premium, and those who mastered the most information were the most educated, and therefore the most successful. In the Information Age, however, much of the content in any school’s curriculum is available to everyone at the push of a button. Those who’ve memorized the most content for any particular test don’t stand out in today’s world; instead, what’s valued most are the skills associated with doing work that the World Wide Web still can’t do.
At Randolph we’re committed to developing what the National Association of Independent Schools and we call the six C’s: character, critical thinking, communication, creativity, collaboration, and cosmopolitanism. These are the skills and values that the 21st century will demand and reward, and these are the skills that we seek to nurture in our students, K-12. Through our commitment to individual learning, relational learning, and learning for the greater good we seek to encourage students to build upon their natural curiosity, hone their inquisitiveness, and apply what they are learning to the world beyond themselves and our school. It’s essential that they learn how to think for themselves, how to convey a convincing argument on paper and in person, how to make something that comes from within rather than is imposed from without, how to work effectively with others, and how to connect with the wider world.
As a former history teacher, I’ve grappled with these challenges for years. I remember first-hand as a student how quickly I forgot what I’d just memorized for a test several days before. Charged with the responsibility of leading students through what I wanted to be a provocative and interesting journey of our nation’s past, I worried as a young teacher that many students struggled to understand why a certain fact mattered. I came to understand that “because I said so” wasn’t a very good answer.
My teaching and their learning became significantly better when I shared five themes that dominate American history, and then we related everything we learned to one or more of those themes. It’s like understanding the roots of a tree and working up as opposed to trying to memorize something unique about the leaves. So my former students may well have forgotten (in fact they most assuredly have forgotten!) the details of the Nullification Crisis of 1832, but they will most likely remember the tension in our democracy between the community and the individual that emerged in the era of the Constitution, played a central role in causing the Civil War, and continues to shape our nation’s political culture.
In today’s world themes and concepts drive content, and understanding for learning and doing is more important than memorizing details. By the way, this is great preparation for college, too. I remember some years ago a professional development trip that my History Department colleagues at Norfolk Academy and I took to the University of Virginia. We met with four UVa professors, and wanted to know what their most successful freshmen and sophomores looked like. Their answers were clear: they can read critically, they can interpret a document, they can make an argument, and they can write. These skills have always mattered, but they are even more important now that information is so ubiquitous. Making sense of all that’s out there and asking the right question will matter more and more.
Some Randolph students (and perhaps some parents) are uncomfortable with these evolutionary shifts. I’ll overhear students say to teachers, “Just tell me what to do,” and in every area of school life (academics, arts, and athletics) we often hear them say, “I hope I’m not wrong.” They’re more comfortable in a world where the teacher tells them what to learn, assesses the material in a predictable way, and then measures the result with precision and fairness. But we don’t live in a predictable and linear world, and those who will be poised to thrive in the years going forward will be increasingly comfortable in the midst of the unknown, will be hungry to learn more deeply (even in the face of disappointment), and eager to experience more fully in service of a larger purpose.
That’s what it means to be a meaning maker and what it means to be a learner for life. It’s what we’re doing more and more here at Randolph, and I would hope that over time conversations at home about what students are learning and why it matters will become more and more common and more and more interesting. There’s never been a more exciting time to be a student or a teacher here, and we’re eager to make the most of this opportunity so that our graduates are prepared for their future.